Tom Eblen: Lexington family and their friends do good during 'volunteer vacations'

Herald-Leader columnistMarch 18, 2014 

Janette and Mike Heitz of Lexington love to travel, and they keep finding new ways to combine it with two of their other passions: bicycling and volunteer service.

The Heitzes organize bike trips to Europe with friends, and they have bicycled on their own in such far-flung places as Laos and Egypt. In 2006, Mike and their son, Cory, biked 7,435 miles down the length of Africa. The next year, Janette and their daughter, Jordan, biked 4,500 miles from Paris, France, to Dakar, Senegal.

A couple of weeks ago, the Heitzes returned from a different kind of trip. They, their daughter and more than a dozen friends from across this country, England and Singapore met in Kumbakonam, India. The group spent a week building basketball and tennis courts, painting a block wall and improving a computer lab at the Mother Clarac Matriculation School, run by the Sisters of Charity of Saint Mary.

This was the 13th such trip the Heitzes have taken in as many years.

"I don't like to call it a mission trip," Janette said. "I call it a volunteer vacation, because it's not religion-based. We are just a group of people who have a little extra money and a little extra time and we like to travel. So each year we pick a third-world country and we all meet there."

Mike started the tradition by participating in a Habitat for Humanity home-building trip to Ghana in 1999. He liked it so much, Janette joined him the next year.

"He thought he would ease me in," she said, so they did a Habitat build in New Zealand. "I loved it. So the next year we jumped in the deep end and went to Mongolia."

After that, the couple did annual Habitat builds in South Africa, Mexico, Costa Rica, Romania, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Then they decided to find their own projects along with friends they had met through Habitat and bicycling. Their group, which calls itself Fix-It Friends, includes a variety of faiths — Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Quaker and atheists.

The first Fix-It Friends trip was to Egypt. Then they went to Laos and Argentina, where they also worked with the Sisters of Charity. That led them to their recent trip to southwest India.

"We think education is the key to a better life," Mike said. So, in addition to basic facility improvements, the group likes to provide computers to schools and orphanages where they work that have electricity. In addition to fixing old computers at Mother Clarac School and setting up a wifi network, the friends are buying 20 rugged $100 tablet computers for the school.

The Heitzes said they enjoy interacting with local people where they work. One day in India, while making the hour-long walk back to their hotel from the school, they came upon a wedding in progress.

"They saw us as some sign of good luck," Janette said. "Here we were in our work clothes, I had paint splattered all over me, and they invited us in and took photos with us."

The Heitzes arrived early to see some of India's sights, including Ghandi's tomb and the Taj Mahal. Then, after their week of volunteer work, they biked 30-40 kilometers a day for six days in the Kerala state of southeast India.

"It is the flattest part of India, and beautiful," Janette said, but riding was tricky because "traffic laws are regarded as only a suggestion."

The couple met at West Virginia University, where he was the basketball team's first 7-footer (1968-72). Heitz's younger brother, Tom, played for Kentucky (1979-84).

Mike is an investment banker who specializes in taking companies public. When the IPO market slowed five years ago, he also started a company that buys environmentally distressed industrial properties, restores and re-sells them. Their children work in his companies. Jordan Hurd and her mother also write a popular lifestyle blog, The Two Seasons (The2seasons.com).

Next year, the Fix-It Friends plan to meet in Colombia.

"To me, the important part of this is that we're promoting goodwill," Janette said. "People in these places don't always have the most positive attitude about Americans. But my hope is that in the future when they think of Americans they will think of us and they will think of love. It's like my little answer to world peace."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service